Firefly Drone Shows

We are just now beginning to see the possibilities of orchestrated drone swarms and how they can be used for entertainment. In the not too distant future firework shows in American will be replaced with organized drone shows and halftime shows at the Super Bowl will showcase a synchronized display of visuals that align with the entertainment.

Police Used a Drone to Chase Down and Arrest Four DUI Suspects

Shit is getting real. Last Friday, near a cornfield in North Dakota, four underage men were pulled over under suspicion of drunk driving. The four men hopped out of their car and bolted into the cornfield. Grand Forks police didn't follow them: Instead, they put a drone in the sky.

"One of them was walking through the cornfield. It took about three minutes to find him," Alan Frazier, Deputy Sheriff in charge of the Grand Forks Police Department's unmanned aerial vehicle system unit told me. "The other was found on a second flight, after maybe 25 minutes."

The two other suspects were apprehended at another time—they had the unlucky distinction of becoming the first Americans ever tracked down and arrested with the help of a police quadcopter.

Welcome to the future of police work.

The Qube drone that was used to chase down four DUI suspects last weekend. Image: Author

That it happened around Grand Forks is not a surprise. 

Two years ago, a cattle rancher near there was arrested with the help of a Department of Homeland Security Predator drone, becoming the first man arrested in the US with the help of a drone. These four men become the first to be arrested in the US with the help of a local police drone (as of 2013, there were roughly 24 police agencies using drones).

Two weeks ago, in something of a coincidence, I sat in a conference room in Grand Forks as Frazier pitched me and several other journalists on the force's use of drones.

To start off the presentation, he pulled up this video, made by AeroVironment, the company that makes the Qube, the drone that Frazier and his team and several other police departments around the country use:

Frazier called the video, in which a fugitive is tracked down with a drone, "a little Hollywood," but that's essentially what happened there, last week. The Grand Forks Police Department is the first in the United States to get Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly at night, and last weekend's mission was the very first time the department had ever used the Qube at night on a mission.

"There's a misnomer that these are covert spy tools," Frazier told me when I was in Grand Forks. "We utilize them for events that are already occurring. We look for felony suspects, we do further analysis, we use them for totally overt missions. There's no plans to use them covertly."


"That's not to say they can't be used for covert missions, but they haven't been," he added. A video he showed us pitched the Qube as a "powerful surveillance tool."

The back of the "UAS Unit" SUV. Image: Author

Tim Schuh, the police officer most often tasked with actually flying the thing, says it's been used about a dozen times in the last year—only once while actually looking for a suspect (before this last case). "We're not flying over downtown looking for trouble," he said.

Still, the department seems a bit gung-ho about drones in a way that many others are not. Frazier balked at the idea that the department should or would get a warrant before flying one. (California Gov. Jerry Brown just vetoed a bill that would have required police in the state to get a warrant before using a drone).

A fourth suspect has remained unnamed because he is believed to be under 18. Image:  Valley News Live

When I asked Frazier if he thinks a warrant should be necessary, he said, "absolutely not. We do a quick litmus test—'does he have a reasonable expectation of privacy?' If so, then we'd seek a search warrant."

So far, the drone had been flown on 11 different occasions, only once to search for a fugitive (it wasn't successful that time). It's been used to monitor flooding, look for missing persons, take videos of a sexual assault scene, take photos of a murder scene, and once to get photos of a traffic accident scene.

After telling us about the drone program, Frazier took me outside, where Schuh was on hand to show off the Qube's capabilities. The Qube lives in the back of a police SUV that's marked "UAS Unit." Schuh set it up, and the Qube, a quadcopter not much bigger than the white Phantom drones that have become so popular with hobbyists, took off and immediately began sending footage back down to the ground station.

At this point, the process has become routine. Maybe that's why, when those four men ran off into the cornfield, police didn't chase them, Frazier said. Instead, the drone was called in and found them.

"From there, it was just like any other foot pursuit," he told me. "You chase them down and take them to jail."

TED: Raffaello D'Andrea - The astounding athletic power of quadcopters

In a robot lab at TEDGlobal, Raffaello D'Andrea demos his flying quadcopters: robots that think like athletes, solving physical problems with algorithms that help them learn. In a series of nifty demos, D'Andrea show drones that play catch, balance and make decisions together -- and watch out for an I-want-this-now demo of Kinect-controlled quads.

Top 10 Reasons Drones Are Disruptive

If you think today’s drones are interesting, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Drones are in their deceptive phase, about to go disruptive. Check out where they’re going…

What makes today’s “drones” possible?

The billion-fold improvement we’ve seen between 1980 and 2010 is what makes today’s drones possible, specifically in four areas:

  1. GPS: In 1981, the first commercial GPS receiver weighed 50 pounds and cost over $100K. Today, GPS comes on a 0.3 gram chip for less than $5.
  2. IMU: An Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) measures a drone’s velocity, orientation and accelerations. In the 1960s an IMU (think Apollo program) weighed over 50 lbs. and cost millions. Today it’s a couple of chips for $1 on your phone.
  3. Digital Cameras: In 1976, Kodak’s first digital camera shot at 0.1 megapixels, weighed 3.75 pounds and cost over $10,000. Today’s digital cameras are a billion-fold better (1000x resolution, 1000x smaller and 100x cheaper).
  4. Computers & Wireless Communication (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth): No question here. Computers and wireless price-performance have gotten a billion times better between 1980 and today.

10 Industries Using Today’s Drones:

  1. Agriculture: Drones watch for disease and collect real-time data on crop health and yields. This is an estimated $3B annual market size.
  2. Energy: Energy companies monitor miles of pipeline and oil rigs with autonomous drones.
  3. Real Estate and Construction: Drones photograph, prospect and advertise real estate from golf courses to skyscrapers; they also monitor construction in progress.
  4. Rapid Response and Emergency Services: Drones aid in search and rescue operations ranging from forest fire fighting to searching for people buried in rubble or snow using infrared sensors.
  5. News: It’s faster and safer to deploy drones to cover breaking news/disaster/war zones than news crews.
  6. Package/Supply Delivery: Companies like Matternet (founded at Singularity University) are building networks of UAVs to deliver food and medical supplies to remote villages around the world.
  7. Photography/Film: Visual artists use drones to capture beautiful new images and camera angles.
  8. Scientific Research/Conservation: Drones assist in everything from counting sea lions in Alaska to conducting weather and environmental research to tracking herd movements on the Savannah in Africa.
  9. Law Enforcement: Drones can be used during hostage situations, search and rescue operations, bomb threats, when officers need to pursue armed criminals, and to monitor drug trafficking across our borders.
  10. Entertainment/Toys: Good old fun.

So, Where Next?

What happens in the next 10 years when drones are 1000x better? Or 30 years from now when they are 1,000,000,000x better? What does that even mean, or look like? Here are some directions for your imagination:

  • Smart and Autonomous: Drones will have a mind of their own… thinking, doing, navigating, avoiding, seeking, finding, sensing and transmitting.
  • Microscopic and Cheap: Think about drones the size of a housefly, sending you full-motion HD video. Think swarms of drones (hundreds) where losing half of your swarm won’t matter because another hundred are there to replace them. How much will they cost? I would be shocked if they price doesn’t plummet to less than $10 each… maybe $1.

Top Future Drone Applications?

  1. Pollination: Imagine bee-sized drones pollinating flowers (in fact, we’re actually doing this now);
  2. Personal security: In the future, your children will have a flotilla of micro-drones following them to school and to playgrounds at all times, scanning for danger;
  3. Action sports photography: Imagine 100 micro-drone-cameras following a downhill skier capturing video from every angle in real time;
  4. Asteroid prospecting and planetary science: On a cosmic scale, my company Planetary Resources is building the ARKYD 300 — effectively a space drone with 5km per second delta-V. PRI plans to send small flotillas of four to six A300 drones (with onboard sensors) to remote locations like the asteroids or the moons of Mars;
  5. Medical in-body drones: On the microscopic scale, each of us will have robotic drones traveling through our bodies monitoring and repairing;
  6. High Altitude “Atmospheric Satellite” Drones: Google recently announced Project Loon to provide a global network of stratospheric balloons, and then acquired Titan Aerospace to provide for solar powered aerial drones, both of which could blanket the entire planet to provide low-cost Internet connectivity, anytime, anywhere; and,
  7. Ubiquitous surveillance: Combined with facial recognition software and high-resolution cameras, drones will know where everybody and everything is at all times. Kiss privacy goodbye. Are you a retailer? Want to know how many people are wearing your product at any time? Future imaging drones will give you that knowledge.
  8. Military and Anti-terrorism: Expect a significant increase in defense-related applications of drones in war zones and in your local backyard, sensing and searching for dangers ranging from biological to radiation.

So, What are the Challenges?

Technical challenges aside, we’ll have to address many sociopolitical challenges before drones become disruptive.

There are concerns over privacy and spying, interference with planes/helicopters, drones aiding illegal activities, safety and potential crashes, noise and cluttering the skies, theft and commercial use.

I recommend looking at the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 to get a glimpse of the legal landscape surrounding drones.

This bill expires in September of 2015.

In other words, pending major legislative changes, expect 2015 to be a big year for drones.

Why are drones going to be disruptive?

Besides all of the use cases outlined above, drones represent an interesting convergence of three exponential technology areas:

  1. The Internet of Everything: Drones will be a key part of our trillion-sensor future, transporting a variety of sensors (thermal imaging, pressure, audio, radiation, chemical, biologics, and imaging) and will be connected to the Internet. They will communicate with each other and with operators.
  2. Advanced Battery Technology: Increases in energy density (kilowatt-hours per kilogram) will allow drones to operate for longer periods of time. Additionally, solar battery technology is allowing high-altitude drones to fly for weeks at a time without landing.
  3. Automation Software and Artificial Intelligence: Hundreds of teams around the world are working on automation systems that a) make drones easier for untrained users to fly, but more importantly, b) allow drones to fly and operate autonomously.

This is just the start.

At my Abundance 360 Executive Summit in January 2015, we’ll discuss this in much more detail and talk about potential investment opportunities in this arena. If you’re interested in joining me, there are only a few slots left. Apply here.

Drone with legs can perch, watch and walk like a bird

Is that a bird or a drone watching you from the telephone wire? A drone with legs can perch just like a bird – or land and walk on flat surfaces. Bhargav Gajjar of Vishwa Robotics in Brighton, Massachusetts, designed the legs as an add-on for small US air force drones.

Small drones generally lack landing gear. Many rely on a controlled crash-landing, a somewhat crude approach compared with the elegant precision landing of a perching bird. Gajjar studied dozens of bird species and recorded their landings using a high-speed camera. His drone's legs are based on those of the American kestrel.

The drone perches in an upright position with a powerful gripping action from an electric motor. Its claws are extremely sharp so that its grip is difficult to break.

A remote computer uses footage from a camera fitted to the drone to control flight and get the drone into the correct position for landing. Just like a real bird, the drone has to brake sharply just above its landing site and perform a controlled stall in order to touch down. Birds' legs also act as shock absorbers, and the mechanical version mimics this.

Gajjar's perching legs can waddle short distances, so the drone can explore indoor spaces.
Read more at http://bit.ly/1sTk7gj

Flying Robot Rockstars. KMel Robotics presents a team of flying robots that have taken up new instruments to play some fresh songs. The hexrotors create music in ways never seen before, like playing a custom single string guitar hooked up to an electric guitar amp. Drums are hit using a deconstructed piano action. And there are bells. Lots of bells.

SWARM Quadrotors (Aerial Robots): Coordinated Flight of Small Quadcoptors Interacting with Humans

Swarms of Aerial Robots using “inexpensive” small RC quadrotor platforms, autonomous control/guidance algorithms inspired from our work in distributed, cooperative controlhttp://publish.illinois.edu/aerospace… and a Vicon motion capture system. 

Aerospace Robotics and Control Laboratory
Department of Aerospace Engineering
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign